At the Palatlakaha Environmental and Agricultural Reserve Park south of Leesburg, work is underway to transform what was once an University of Florida agricultural research center for watermelon and grapes to a working farm, restored upland habitats, and recreational facilities. What’s remained untouched is the focus of this hike.
A ribbon of green defines the edge of the park, and within that shady space is the Dr. S.J. (Joe) Stephany Memorial River Trail. This natural footpath parallels the Palatlakaha River, a waterway that historically connected 13 lakes between Lake Harris (in Leesburg) and Lake Louise (south of Clermont). It’s obvious from the height of the bluffs that this was once a significant river, and it’s mentioned in historic journals about the region. But today it’s almost dry—not just because of our drought, but because of development along its route dropping the level of the Floridan aquifer. It’s a cautionary tale you can walk in comfort, marveling at the many well-interpreted native plants along the 3 mile round-trip.
Length: 3 miles
Lat-Long: 28.734669, -81.874505
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at the agricultural center, plus portables by the playground
Dogs are NOT permitted on the trail, only in the Paw Park.
The main road into the park leads straight to the trailhead. If you turn right just before the trailhead, the side road leads to the Paw Park, playground, and fitness area, with access to the easternmost end of the linear trail just beyond the fence line on your left as you drive into the woods.
From downtown Leesburg, drive south on US 27 for 5.8 miles, crossing SR 48 (which can be reached from Florida’s Turnpike) and Palatlakaha Creek. There is a sign for the park on the right at University Drive. Turn right and drive past the retirement community and into the park. The road passes a community garden and garden center and continues towards the treeline in the distance, where you’ll find the trailhead for this hike, 1.1 miles from US 27.
Start your hike at the trail kiosk, where you can see the map that delineates this trail system. There are three colors of blazing to watch out for. Orange blazes mark the main trail along the river bluffs, blue blazes serve as connectors, and white blaze posts mark a 3-mile multi-use loop that the blue blazes connect to the orange-blazed River Trail. You can use the blue blaze connectors to make loops up to 2 miles out of the River Trail, but all of the white blazed trail is in full sun. We found it much more pleasant to retrace our steps along the river.
Walk straight towards the treeline. You’ll find a trail register and a mailbox which contains a bird sighting log and trail maps, and there’s a bat house here, too. Turn left and follow the orange blazes and start walking upstream along the “river” bluffs. The Palatlakaha River rises in the Green Swamp and flows northward to Lake Harris through a chain of lakes along the western border of Lake County; here, the flow is so insubstantial these days that it’s named Palatlakaha Creek on the nearby highway bridge. Across the creek, you can see part of the reason why—subdivisions. This region has undergone extreme high-density growth over the past decade, which means more water pulled from the aquifer, affecting the waterways.
The delights of this footpath are many. It’s in deep shade under a tightly-knit canopy of ancient live oaks, some with a girth that speaks to centuries of growth. It’s on high bluffs, so you can see down into oxbow bends and pools along the waterway, where willows and spatterdock grow and cypresses rise from the narrow but deep chasm. And it’s graced with 40 interpretive markers highlighting native plants, making this an educational experience as well. Look for hand-hewn cypress posts along this first part of the route, perhaps part of a boundary fence for a pioneer homestead. You’ll pass the first at 0.3 mile, near a bench. Saw palmetto grows thickly under the oaks. You step over the limb of an oak that’s embedded itself into the footpath. You definitely have to watch your head while walking this trail, due to the low-hanging limbs.
At 0.5 mile you reach Marker C, your first opportunity to loop back on the White Trail to the beginning, and a bench. Continue straight. Duck under low-hanging oak limbs as the trail swings out by the water; there’s a bench at a pretty overlook soon after. Watch for a cat-faced pine on the right, a sign of turpentine tapping done more than 50 years ago. Bluebird boxes are scattered throughout the woods. Marker D provides another loop opportunity at a picnic table under a massive live oak. Continue straight. A bench sits beneath a cypress right along the waterway, where cypress knees rise like crooked fingers from the duff. Marker E is the final spot for a loop back along the White Trail, at 1 mile. The trail drops down to the right and crosses a bridge over a dry side channel where royal ferns rise out of the streambed. A willow marsh edged by sawgrass fills a low spot, with a cypress along its shore surrounded by slender knees like the pnematphores of a black mangrove. Follow the orange blazes over the hills and around the saw palmetto until you come to trail’s end at a bench on the river. Look down into the waterway and you can see the remains of a historic bridge—hand-hewn cypress footers and logs.
Turn around and retrace your steps. You can use any of the cross-trails at Markers E through C to make a loop with the White Trail, but I’d recommend walking back the way you came. It’s much prettier and in the shade. When you get back to Marker B, keep walking straight along the shady corridor. There are more identified plants here, and high-bush blueberries laden with blossoms. Traffic noise increases as you’re drawing towards US 27. There are ancient oaks here, too, with a solid understory of saw palmetto beneath them. The trail reaches Marker A, another place to loop back on the White Trail to the start, and turns left past a creekbed filled with royal ferns. When you reach the fenceline, turn right and loop back around to Marker A. You can continue back from here the way you came, or head out into the open field on the White Trail to pass a large gazebo on a hill. When you get back to Marker B, you’ve completed the hike. Make sure you sign out and leave a note in the log about any wildlife or birds you see—we watched a rat snake climb up a tree!